U. S. Torture: Not dead yet?
Backed by excellent research and writing of Bergen Ethical Culture Leader Joe Chuman, a resolution passed by the American Ethical Union Annual Assembly in April of 2008 declared that, “the use of torture is the most heinous violation of human dignity.” Prior to its passage, the National Leader’s Council discussed whether torture is really the “most” heinous violation of ethical culture values. After all, what about mass murder and genocide and terrorism? Besides, wasn’t torture supposed to help stop mass murder in the “war on terror?”
While this conversation may seem overly academic to some, it did help me clarify a particular horror of torture. My commitment to Ethical Culture includes an emphasis on the sacredness of relationships. As terrible as the killing of one person by another is, in most cases it occurs in a flash without establishment of any real relationship between killer and killed. Modern warfare is particularly good at creating a distance between them. Much killing is orchestrated with buttons and video screens, a dehumanization that is a topic for another blog.
Torture, however, relies particularly on the establishment of a personal relationship between torturer and tortured. The manipulation of psychology and power creates a perverse relationship twisted by humiliation and suffering. Given my reverence for relationships, I concluded that, yes, torture is the most heinous violation of human dignity and a particularly horrible aspect of U. S. foreign policy.
Despite the election of Obama, who declared torture off limits for U. S. policy, the issue is not dead. In George Bush’s recently released memoir, Decision Points, it is clear that this ex-president is unconvinced by Obama’s policy shift. In referring to his authorization of waterboarding, Bush replied in typically cocky fashion, “Damn right!” This makes me worried that the specter of torture has not been banished once and for all from U. S. policy. Some, including the ex-president himself, seem assured that legally (and thus, ethically, according to some) torture is defendable in the context of U. S. history and the self-proclaimed “war on terror.” As Washington Post editorial from November 16, 2010 warns, there is “no guarantee that the shameful human rights violations perpetrated by Mr. Bush will not be repeated.”
One reason for this is that Bush was assured by his legal advisors, such as now-infamous Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, that the Geneva Convention did not apply to “enemy combatants” captured in Afghanistan. Is this a case of too many lawyers and too little common sense? Perhaps. One State Department lawyer pointed out the irony of the tact taken by the Bush White House: “Why lawyers, of all people, should want to establish the point that such a lawless regime could legally exist, even as a theoretical matter, much less recommend that one actually be created, is, I confess, beyond me, and in itself it a sad commentary on the extent to which sophistry has penetrated what used to be widely regarded as an honorable and learned profession.”
I am proud to say that these words said by my cousin, William Howard Taft IV, State Department chief legal adviser in 2002. Despite our political differences, I know Will as a man of tremendous intelligence and integrity. I applauded his critique of Yoo’s position as “seriously flawed” in 2002, and recall it today in the wake of the release of Bush’s memoir. Will did not mince words in writing to Yoo: “Your position is, at this point, erroneous in its substance and untenable in practice. Your conclusions are as wrong as they are incomplete. Let’s talk.”
Now, four years of talk and a new administration later, should we become less vigilant simply because Will’s position is shared by most legal scholars? How well is the law being respected “on the ground?” In a recent Harpers article, there are reports indicating that U. S. forces still operate secret prisons where abuse may easily slide towards torture. For example, researcher Jonathan Horowitz wrote about a secret facility run on the periphery of Bagram Air Base, the “Tor” or “Black Jail.” He cites worrisome reports of sleep deprivation, forced nudity, physical abuse, and more – all things that violate the Army’s rules for detention conditions and intelligence gathering.
These reports, combined with resurgent political polemics and a return of the Bush doctrine in memoir form, are troublesome. Just how far have we really gotten in weeding out this “most heinous violation of human dignity?” For me, not far enough.